“You can’t handle the truth!” Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson) tells Tom Cruise’s Lt. Daniel Kaffee in the famous climax of A Few Good Men. I thought of that when I watched the streaming George Street Playhouse production of Tiny Beautiful Things. This play tells the truth, and I couldn’t handle it.
Written by Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) and conceived by Thomas Kail (Hamilton) and Marshall Heyman (Dietland), the play is adapted from author Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar.
The show’s backdrop is simple: Strayed, a recently published author, is contacted out of the blue by the writer of the advice column “Dear Sugar,” who is a fan of Strayed’s work and wants to step down from the column. He asks her to take over. Besides getting no credit (as she will be writing under the pseudonym Sugar), she is also guaranteed no pay. In the midst of writing an email to reject this random offer, she has a change of heart and agrees.
“Dear Sugar,” in the hands of Strayed, is not your meemaw’s advice column. Some of the topics covered include heroin addiction, rape, and suicide. The piece is organized as a series of aides-mémoire, with letters being read in rotation by Kally Duling, John Bolger, and Ryan George.
While all three readers are strong, with George’s work being the most layered and nuanced, the star of this show is Laiona Michelle as Sugar. Michelle serves as our guide through Sugar’s life history and fearlessly allows the audience to see how those experiences drive her answers. Under director David Saint, her performance is a masterclass in emotional vulnerability.
As many clamor to return to in-person theater, this streamed production makes a strong argument for continuing prerecorded content. The piece was filmed in a bubble of artists at a producer’s private home, adding depth that would not be possible on a live stage absent an extremely large budget. Chief among these improvements is a working kitchen, where real dishes can be washed in real time, vegetables chopped, and counters cleaned.
While such additions might seem small, they add enormously to the naturalistic feel of the work. The rooted reality of the set also finds purchase in one of the overarching questions of the piece: that of author and authority. Who is Sugar? What is her real name? What grants her the right to answer questions as candidly and nakedly as she does? While I understand that in her book, Strayed does reveal her identity, the choice to follow that path in the play is my biggest problem with the evening.
The tension of anonymity
Advice columnists answer questions. That’s the point of their work. And that creates a problem inherent in the structure of this play: every question posed, no matter how difficult it might be for Sugar, will eventually be answered. That makes the show feel like watching a baseball game where you know, no matter how difficult it might be, the batter will get a hit.
There is a tension in anonymity, and the relationship between the letter writers and Sugar assumes greater depth because of it. Over the course of the play, a friendly rapport with a hint of underlying aggression develops between Sugar and the advice-seekers, and it’s delightful. Revealing Cheryl Strayed as Sugar, and the meetings between her and the letter writers that inevitably follow from this revelation, suffuses the last 15 minutes in a Waltons-esque glow that is utterly incongruous with the rest of the play.
But overall, Tiny Beautiful Things is a lovely, powerful, moving evening of theater that is well worth your time. I encourage you to see it, but with a friend, so afterward you can decompress together from all that truth-telling.
Image description: A scene from Tiny Beautiful Things. Actor Laiona Michelle, a Black woman, smiles comfortably from a chair in the foreground of a large home kitchen. Three other actors stand, with varied expressions, around the kitchen island.
What, When, Where
Tiny Beautiful Things. By Nia Vardalos, adapted from the book Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed. Directed by David Saint. Streaming online through May 23, 2021. georgestreetplayhouse.org.